The Tea Party Threatens John Boehner and the Future of the GOP

(This is the latest entry in the Elephant Dung Series over at my blog. For an explanation of this ongoing series, tracking the GOP civil war, see here. For previous entries, see here.)

Jon Chait had a post the other day arguing that John Boehner has no choice, if he knows what’s good for him, but to shut down the government.

Basically, Boehner is in a tough spot. (No, don’t feel sorry for him. It’s what he gets for being where he is.) He has to try to appeal to independents and moderates if he wants to maintain/maximize the GOP’s electoral prospects for 2012, which means compromising with Democrats on the budget, but he also has to try to appeal to the Tea Party wing of the GOP, a significant part of its right-wing base, if he wants to avoid a full-scale rebellion against his leadership (which could also harm the party’s electoral prospects), which means refusing to compromise and allowing for, if not encouraging, a government shutdown:

What is the downside to a shutdown? Republicans get less popular, have a lower chance to win the presidency in 2012, and maybe a higher chance of losing the House as well. What is the downside to cutting a deal? GOP backbenchers revolt against Boehner and depose him as Speaker of the House.

If I’m Boehner, I’m more worried about the guns pointed at my back then the guns pointed at my face. A shutdown increases the small chance that he goes from Speaker to Minority Leader in 2013, but a deal increases the chance that he goes from Speaker to (R-OH) in 2011. The right-wingers do not trust Boehner, and he has very little slack. He also lived through a series of purges and attempted purges in the late 1990s, always taking the form of purists complaining that the leadership had gone soft.

Boehner’s top priority is probably staving off internal revolt. That means shutting down the government.

In other words, if he puts his own personal/political self-interest first, he’ll appease the Tea Party. That may be so, and he may well do that, but the question isn’t just what Boehner will do but what the Tea Party will do to him. And it may not matter what he does — or, at least, what he does just may not be good enough. The Tea Party already has a bull’s-eye on his head:

The tea partyers who helped drive GOP gains in the last election are rallying in the city they love to hate Thursday, urging Republican House leaders – Speaker John Boehner above all – to resist the drive toward compromise in the protracted fight over the federal budget. Even, they say, if that means Congress fails to do its most important job: pay for the government.

And if Boehner opts instead to agree to a deal with President Barack Obama?

“You’re going to see massive amounts of (GOP) primaries” in next year’s election, said Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots. If the Ohio Republican strikes a budget deal that doesn’t cut spending enough, Meckler said Wednesday, “he is going to face a primary challenge.”

Boehner, like the rest of the party leadership, has been appeasing the Tea Party all along. But he’s also, to his credit, something of a realist in terms of what is and is not doable in Congress:

“We control one half of one third of the government here in Washington,” Boehner told reporters at his weekly briefing. “We can’t impose our will on the Senate. All we can do is to fight for all of the spending cuts that we can get an agreement to.”

He’s right, but that isn’t going to cut it with the Tea Party. The threats may be enough to keep Boehner from compromising too easily, but compromise he must if he is to avoid a repeat of the Gingrich fiasco of the ’90s, when Republicans shut down the government, took most of the blame, and paid for it at the polls. All of this proves once again that the purists in the Tea Party have no clue about governance and are holding the GOP, and its leaders, to impossible standards. And, ultimately, the party will pay for it.

What the Teabaggers think they can gain from this isn’t clear, but it seems that they’d rather be “right” (in their own minds) than win. So far, since the emergence of the Tea Party as a major force, Republicans have been more than willing to kowtow to its demands. Indeed, the GOP has fully embraced the Tea Party, and the two have more or less merged into one (though, of course, the Tea Party has always been heavily Republican and decidedly right-wing in its ideology). But how long will that last? At what point will Republicans, who, after all, have elections to win if they actually want to accomplish anything significant, shed this albatross that is clearly bringing them down?

It may not happen soon, not with all the mutual co-opting that has taken place so far and will the enormous enthusiasm the Teabaggers have brought to the GOP, stirring up a party that seemed catatonic after the ’08 election. The Tea Party is just too influential a part of the GOP right now, and that isn’t about to change. But I’m just not sure the relationship is tenable, not with the Tea Party threatening any Republican who deviates even slightly from its right-wing orthodoxy, even solid conservatives like Orrin Hatch and successful leaders like John Boehner.

It would probably take another massive defeat or two for Republicans to get the message and run the other way, but, with the party purging itself of insufficiently conservative members and the Tea Party leading primary challenges against those who deviate from its extremism, it is likely that the GOP will nominate more and more unelectable candidates, increasing the likelihood of just such a defeat.

Not that I object to the GOP nominating unelectable candidates. I’m all for it! So let’s all enjoy this while we can.

(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)

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